At issue is proposed Ontario legislation to crack down on farm trespassing, often by animal-rights activists, and interfering with agricultural operations, including livestock trucking.
Introduced by the Progressive Conservative government this month, the bill that would jack up trespassing penalties follows a rash of headline-grabbing farm break-ins in recent years, many of them in the southwest.
“It’s really important to us as farmers,” said Eric Schwindt, who has pig barns near Elmira. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of ramping up of illegal activity by animal-rights activists.”
“Farmers are legitimately concerned,” said Andrew Campbell, a dairy and grain farmer near Strathroy, who testified before a parliamentary committee that heard about online criticism and cyber-bullying of farmers and the toll that takes on their mental health.
Opponents of the legislation call it the “ag-gag” bill, arguing it will stifle dissent about farming.
The bill would increase fines for trespassing to $15,000 for a first offence and $25,000 for subsequent offences. It would also make it illegal to stop or interfere with a vehicle hauling farm animals.
Campbell, who became something of a Twitter sensation a few years ago for daily tweets for a year about life on his farm, is blunt when asked if he’s ever felt he or his property were in danger.
“We had a case of online threats from activists, including them saying they were going to come to the farm. We have not, fortunately, had them come to the farm,” he said.
In 2017, a judge dismissed a charge of criminal mischief against a woman who gave water to a truckload of pigs bound for a slaughterhouse in Burlington. If convicted, she could have faced prison time.
Two years earlier, mink farms in Perth and Wellington counties were hit by break-ins. About 6,000 of the animals were released by anonymous activists. Hundreds of mink died, including from being struck on roads.
Campbell and Schwindt say they have nothing against legitimate protest.
“We respect the right to protest,” Schwindt said. All the bill would do, he says, is “give everybody an understanding of where that line is” when a protest becomes illegal trespassing.
They both say they’ve heard of animal advocates showing up at farms — which are not just workplaces, but also farmers’ homes — to incite fear.
“If I’m concerned about childcare (as an issue), I don’t storm into someone’s house and say, ‘I’m taking this child,’ ”said Campbell, who sees the bill as strengthening laws already on the books.
“If you want to challenge something that’s going on, there’s certainly ways to do that,” he said.
One animal rights activist says his group’s goal isn’t to incite fear, but to give animals a voice.
“The problem is that they’re (farmers) operating an industry that we see should not exist,” said Jason King, co-founder of the Animal Liberation Alliance London, whose goal is to help animals achieve legal personhood.
King said he expects the bill to pass but notes the courts don’t automatically have to raise fines. He said the real change is that the bill would make it easier to sue protesters, but added it won’t affect how his group protests.
“When we have laws that are unjust, we have a moral obligation to bring attention to them,” he said.
He said his group doesn’t condone cyber-bulling or threats. “That’s uncivilized.”
Farm groups often send out bulletins when they hear of protesters descending on farms.
“Having people come in, trespassing, it’s scary for everybody involved,” Schwindt said. “There’s also a huge food and animal safety issue.”
“When I look at this legislation, I think society at large will see it as reasonable and common sense. I can’t walk into someone’s living room just to see what’s going on. I think it’s riding a good balance that way,” he added.
ABOUT THE BILL
Escalates fines up to $15,000 for first trespass and $25,000 for subsequent offences
Increases protection for farmers against civil liability from people hurt while trespassing
Prohibits interfering with a vehicle transporting farm animals
Prohibits interacting with farm animals being transported